MARY RESING: The show that seduced me was called TERMINUS: THE BURNING OF ATLANTA. Directed by Dr. David Sauer, the play was produced in a wood frame shotgun chapel near the Avenue of the Oaks at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. TERMINUS envisioned the battle for Atlanta as a professional wrestling match between Generals Sherman and Hood and involved trapeezes, fire poles, palmetto bugs and a lot of sweaty actors. I had never seen anything like it. I didn’t understand it at all. I loved it.
JL: How long have you served as Artistic Director at your company? What drew you to the position? What keeps you there?
MR: I founded Active Cultures six years ago because I felt there was an urgent need to serve and preserve local culture. Like a locavore called to eat locally grown food, I have become a locaturg called to cr(eat)e locally grown art.
JL: What is the most valuable lesson you learned during your tenure? Also, what skills and traits do you feel a successful artistic director should have to support the health and growth of an organization?
MR: Never underestimate your audience. In this dumbed-down world, it is tempting to create fastfood theatre—theatre that goes down like fat-free frozen yoghurt with lots of colorful and sugary toppings. There is constant pressure to avoid anything that makes people think, that challenges them to be smarter than they think they are.
One of the best audience comments I ever got was from a six year old who came to see Active Cultures’ production of PETRI DISH CIRCUS. PETR DISH was a play about the history of microbiology. We went a little overboard on the four and five syllable words. After the show, I somewhat nervously asked the boy how he liked play. He said, “I liked it!” A bit puzzled, I said, “But it has a lot of really big words in it.” He looked at me in surprize and said, “Oh, people are always saying words I don’t understand. I don’t mind. But this play was funny! And some of those words were cool.”
JL: What excites you most about being an Artistic Director? What is your greatest challenge?
JL: If your work as an artistic director doesn’t pay the bills, what else do you do? Also, how do you balance your role leading an organization with your work as a director? Are you ever able to direct outside of your company?
MR: All of this information is classifed. I can release it only to biographers who have had illicit relationships with married CIA directors.
JL: Looking at your body of work as an artistic director and a director, how conscious are you and selecting plays by women or people of color when deciding your season? Also, when it comes to hiring administrators, designers and other directors do you take race and gender into consideration?
MR: As a producer and an artist, I am interested in power dynamics both on and off stage. I’m fascinated by the intersections of race, gender, class, education, age and political agenda.
At Active Cultures, we (Jacqueline Lawton, James Hesla and myself) are always juggling priorities. For example, what is better: a play by a woman or a play with a strong role for a woman? A play by a person of color with lots of roles for young white guys or a play by a young white guy with lots of roles for people of color? A play written by a woman or a play a woman wants to direct? A space that is accessible to artists in wheelchairs or a space where we can reach neighborhood kids and seniors? We argue, we struggle, we wrestle with our consciences, we make imperfect choices.
In the end, our goal is to create locally specific work for a diverse, multigenerational audience. If we keep that goal in mind, we usually create work by a diverse group of artists from multiple generations. And as we all know, whatever you put on stage will be reflected in your audience.
JL: DC audiences are ...
MR: Unlike audiences anywhere else in the world.
JL: DC actors and designers are ...
MR: Driven, scrappy, visionary and politically savvy.
JL: DC playwrights are …
JL: DC critics are ...
MR: Worried. With all of the current rapid changes in news media, today’s influential critic is tomorrow’s unemployed writer.
JL: What advice do you have for up and coming theatre artists who have just moved to D.C.?
MR: Come work with me.
JL: What's next for you as a director and your company??
MR: On Feburary 22 & 23rd, Active Cultures will produce .govaculture as part of the Intersections Festival at the Atlas Theatre. .govaculture is an evening of 1 minute plays about working for the federal government. Tickets can be purchased at http://intersectionsdc.org
Of course, since .govaculture is inspired by the federal government, we expect it to be over time and over budget.